Not too many years ago, my wife and I took our children – as have so many other American families – on a pilgrimage to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, certainly one of the most venerated shrines to our nation’s ongoing quest for freedom. We explored the hills and valleys of the bucolic landscape trying to envision the scope and sequence of the terrible events that transpired there, attempting to fathom the staggering loss of life, seeking to understand the very personal and yet broadly national meanings of the battle’s outcomes. We stood on Little Round Top, and in the field that was Pickett’s Charge. We took pictures of monuments dedicated to the brave regiments, and honored the grave of an ancestor who died there. Our experiences were profound and unforgettable.
This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. And along with this anniversary, we honor that great leader whose words – delivered to the nation just a few months after the battle – gave meaning to the towering heroism as well as the unspeakable horrors that were endured there. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become perhaps the most iconic speech in this nation’s history, never to be forgotten.
With these things in mind, I sought to create an opportunity for string students to experience for themselves, and to express to others, the meaning and importance of this turning point in our great national struggle. And so I wrote Lincoln at Gettysburg for string orchestra, percussion and narrator (published by Alfred Music, 2013). The piece combines an original musical score with a narration describing Lincoln’s labors to compose his address. Lincoln at Gettysburg begins in a somber and reflective mood conveying Lincoln’s own deep sense of sadness over the catastrophic loss of life in the battle. Themes borrowed from several famous Civil War era songs are heard, including “Kingdom Coming” by Henry C. Work, and “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” a poignant parlor song by George F. Root. As the piece builds to a patriotic finale, additional melodies join in, first from the marching tune “The Battle Cry of Freedom” – also by George F. Root – and finally “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by William Steffe. Lincoln at Gettysburg conveys Lincoln’s successful struggle to find the words that would reassure a grieving nation, and would live on to inspire and unify generations of Americans to follow.
As with our family’s experiences visiting Gettysburg – and perhaps like yours – I hope that both students and listeners will never forget their own encounter with Lincoln at Gettysburg.